26 May 2010

US Army Cracks Down on Murphy in Haiti

Haiti 9 Comments

OK sorry for the sensationalist headline… In response to my Mises Daily on Haiti, I got the following message from an officer in the U.S. Army (reprinted with permission):

Robert, I read your article in Christian Science Monitor titled “Economic Lessons from Haiti”. I have a few comments for you with regards to your observations under the Building Codes section. To introduce myself, I am an engineer officer in the U.S. Army. I am the project manager for a number of construction projects throughout the country. All my projects are built by local labor, not Army engineer units. Also, all my projects are engineered and rated to withstand both earthquakes and hurricanes.

First, Haiti has no building code. Jamaica and France have both offered theirs for Haiti to accept it and ratify it as their own. With no national building code, there is no standard to build to. Second, Haiti does have a practical building permit system. A residential building permit costs $640 USD. The average daily wage of the few that are employed is $5.26 USD. With such a meager wage, few if any are willing to dole out $640 to get a building permit and have their home inspected during the construction process.

Another major issue is the quality of materials. The U.S. standard for the stregth of a CMU (concrete masonry unit AKA cinder block) is 1900 psi. The large manufacturers in Haiti know how to build a proper CMU. The problem is that, surprisingly, they can’t obtain sand which is a main ingredient in concrete mixes. They’re substituting limestone, which is readily available and far inferior to sand. Not only does limestone have less strength than sand, limestone will literally eat away at the rebar which is put in the buildings to reinforce it. There are places where sand can be obtained, but few have made an investment to set up a crushing plant and haul road to transport this vital raw material to the concrete plants. Right now, they have numerous mining operations set up to quarry their limestone. If such operations were set up to produce sand, the cost for raw materials would be the same, hence the cost of the CMU block would be the same but with a much stronger block. In addition, we have identified CMU manufacturers that cut corners to save costs. They don’t add the right amount of cement into the mix. This is done purely to save costs to the plant owner. Well, the problem is that less cement in the mix means a weaker CMU block. They’re not offering a reduced price for this inferior block. They’re charging the same and the public is being duped.

Rebar is also problematic here. Rebar gives a structure it’s tensile strength (the ability for beams to stay together). The problem is that rusty rebar loses its strength. Haitians don’t understand the importance of keeping rebar out of the rain and elements until it is installed. They habitually install rusty rebar in buildings. Rust-covered rebar embedded in a limestone concrete mixture can literally dissolve in about 2-3 years thus negating any strength properties the steel would initially have given to the structure. In essence, they’re pretty much wasting their money by installing rusty rebar in inferior concrete mixes. In addition, they do not know how to specify what size rebar to use for each application. I constantly see rebar that is for example 1/4″ diameter but 1/2″ diameter steel should have been used. This wasn’t done for cost purposes; they just didn’t know better. Also, they don’t know how to join rebar splices together. Rebar loses it’s strength if the joints aren’t correctly spliced.

Haitians do not understand how to lay CMU blocks. They use the wrong mixes for their mortar, they don’t mortar their joints properly, they habitually use broken block thinking it’s the same as an unbroken block, etc. When they pour concrete, they don’t understand the importance of vibrating the concrete mix to remove the air voids. This creates what is known as a honeycomb effect. This creates a massive weak plane in concrete and usually a point of failure. Also, Haitians NEVER install expansion joints or control joints. All structures naturally contract and expand with air temperature due to thermal properties. You need joints in a building to permit proper expansion to prevent the building from cracking. You also need these joints installed for seismic reasons to make the structure more “flexible”.

Finally, Haitians don’t use crushed rock in their concrete mixes. A rock crusher is needed to crush rock. They use river rock in everything. River rock is smooth and slick. Cement can’t bind to it. It’s like trying to pour a bag of cement on some marbles- it’s not going to stick very well. Yes, a rock crusher is an investment. There are a few out here, but there are too few to support the needs of the construction industry here.

In summation, it was the shoddy workmanhip and subpar materials that killed the people. A quality structure that is safe and engineered to resist both earthquakes and hurricanes can be designed and built in Haiti. The factors that need to change are substandard building materials, poor workmanship, an lack of engineering. The only component that would increase the cost of a building is the engineering. This cost could be negligible if some engineers were to mass-produce a set of floor plans that could be purchased for a few dollars similar to the ones we can buy in the U.S. through those house plan books.

As I said in the beginning, I’m building over 40 projects throughout the country. These projects are using local labor and local building materials, yet they will be hurricane and earthquake safe. The difference is that my projects are designed by an engineer and a competent project manager is running the projects to ensure proper workmanship and good quality materials are used. Aside from the engineering, my pro forma budget is the same as what any other Haitian contractor would spend to build the same projects.

9 Responses to “US Army Cracks Down on Murphy in Haiti”

  1. Taylor says:

    It’s funny that he blames the lack of building inspections during the construction process to the “meager” daily wage, and not the $640 price tag of the government permit fee, which is equivalent to 4mos of labor at that average wage rate. Is $640 some kind of “economically efficient” price the government calculated? If so, how? And what does the fee pay for?

    Now, the question remains– why does Haiti remain a place of shoddy workmanship and subpar materials? Of course, we know the answer, but few others seem to at this point.

  2. Slim934 says:

    Please tell me you responded to this to point out the flaws in his logic.

  3. robbie says:

    The world would take men out of the slums, Christ will take the slum out of the man.

    The Army Corp of Engineers has not properly identified the problem in Haiti. The integrity of masonry is not the problem. It is the abrogation of personal responsibility that has led to central control of their government. A righteous people will overthrow central planners whether peaceably through the voting booth or through violence as in our case as described by the Declaration of Independence. The power that comes with Haiti’s central planning has led to corruption of their government and laws. Corruption of their government has led to a dislocated market that cannot provide sand and quality building materials to end users.

    I’m not so sure the Army Corp of Engineers has a lasting solution for Haiti so take notice that the tragedy of Haiti will happen again and again and again…

  4. Ricardo Cruz says:

    In summary, Haiti is a poor country.

  5. Garrett Smith says:

    I’m an Army Officer and I see everyday the difficulty in trying to explain the free market position on situations like Haiti and War. Soldiers are continually told day in and day out that they are heroes and righteous warriors. They develop an inflated self ego and general naivte about the world which creates a disincentive to question the statist position. The logic from the above Army Officer is downright embarrassing.

  6. Daniel Hewitt says:

    Bob, I hope you didn’t pass up your chance to ask this guy his opinion of the WTC7 collapse 🙂

    As the other commenters have pointed out, an engineering analysis that disregards the economic aspect is only minimally useful. Every engineer has to deal with cost constraints.

  7. Robert Wenzell says:


    I think Daniel Hewitt makes a good point. Seeing you are exchanging emails, why not a question on WTC7, all the WTC building collapses for that matter, and get his engineering perspective?

    Tell him your readers are demanding this of you.

  8. Rohan Mahy says:

    I am in Haiti as well. I have personally seen all the problems that the Army Officer has mentioned. They are obvious even to many non-engineers. The finished wall 2ft from me has massive voids. Last week I saw someone on the road making cement blocks using a lot of crushed limestone. I tried to pick up one of the finished blocks with one hand but it crumbled instantly with the force of a strong handshake. The house I am living in is fissured but still considered safe for habitation. Most of the lintels are cracked and you can see that they have (rusty) rebar which is exactly the width of the door (the rebar does not extend into the wall). You can walk down a street in a badly hit neighborhood and see that houses that were well built are still standing (some with no visible damage) while all the badly damaged buildings have obvious building flaws.

    I believe the point that the Army Officer is making–that Haitians generally do a very poor job of building cement houses–is correct. The economic reasons are many, but it is not sufficient to say that Haiti is poor, therefore they do a poor job building cement buildings. I also lived in Benin, West Africa. Even though Benin is a poorer country, the Beninese *generally* do a much better job constructing cement buildings than the Haitians. (The Haitians are much better at making furniture than the Beninese. Not everyone can be good at everything.)

    Another interesting question though is why Haitians built in cement at all. In 1751 after the second of two big earthquakes, the government banned buildings that weren’t made of wood. As it turns out, traditional building methods such as all wood buildings and wood frame with loose stone between diagonal wooden beams (columbage) did pretty well in the earthquake. These are relatively inexpensive compared to cement houses. The problem is that cement homes are often built for status, not out of a practical need for the properties of cement.

  9. Craig says:

    US Army Engineer Officer in Haiti: please get in touch with Bob again. I would like to talk to you next week about the materials issues you raised in your comments on Bob’s Monitor article. I am a US based civil engineer who has worked in Haiti for the last 14 years and i have interest and ability to help you mitigate each of the issues raised. Lets talk soon. i will be back in Haiti sometime over the next 10 days.